Up All Night is the sitcom version of the bestselling not-for-children’s book Go the Fuck to Sleep. In that warped take on a picture book, soothing imagery and a singsong rhyme scheme are punctuated at the end of each couplet by a vulgar expression of desperation that any parent will recognize.
Reagan (Christina Applegate) and Chris (Will Arnett) are not bad parents. In fact, they are loving and caring, both with their baby and each other. It’s just that they are a little overwhelmed and surprised by the current state of affairs created by the introduction of an infant into their world.
They used to go out all night. They used to drink and smoke and dance. They still swear, which is a running joke in the series premiere, as they curse in front of the baby, then say they have to stop. These scenes would be funnier on a network that didn’t have to bleep the words and fuzz out the actors’ mouths when they are saying them—effects that come off as weird rather than funny.
But we get the point. These two people, with their active night lives and high-powered careers—she’s a producer on an Oprah-like show hosted by Ava (Maya Rudolph), he’s a corporate lawyer—aren’t meant to be shackled to a baby. They expect to be free.
The opening sequence, something of a flashback, shows Reagan and Chris considering a variety of pregnancy tests warily, the scene leaving a distinct suggestion that this was an accident. But Up All Night doesn’t question of the desirability or merits of parenthood. Despite their struggles to adjust, there is never any doubt that both parents-to-be believe that raising their daughter is their top priority.
The present-day action begins as Reagan’s maternity leave is ending. Since she is going back to work, they’ve decided that Chris will stay home to care for the baby. It is a sign of the times that the show is not about that decision. In another era, this would have turned into Mr. Mom. While we do get a fair share of Chris learning to deal with his new schedule, Reagan’s return to work is equally fraught. She struggles to re-enter the work force while missing the time with her daughter. It seems that Up All Night is eager to avoid gender politics, but not at the expense of ignoring gendered experiences, stereotypical or not. The show is about prioritization, not guilt and regret.
In other words, this is not a show that wants to be analyzed. Rather, it demands that you enjoy it. And there is plenty of humor to mine in the premise. Some of it stretches a bit too far for the laugh, such as when Chris nearly has a meltdown in the supermarket because he is being stalked by senior citizens who want to coo at the baby and he is unable to find any cheese that isn’t “fancy.” But most of the time, the jokes comes from the place where all parents have been—when they realize that their infant now rules their lives.
Such familiarity helps to make Chris and Reagan genuinely funny and appealing. Even when they fight, they do it with a kind of charm that you almost wish you were part of the argument. Throwing Reagan’s famous boss, Ava, into the parents’ already demanding mix adds to the entertainment. Ava relies on Reagan to keep her show running and tries but can’t quite understand why a baby would be more important than that. Her casual self-involvement provides a nice counterpoint to Reagan and Chris’ newfound mandatory selflessness.
Rarely does a family sitcom actually focus on the realities of parenting, especially when an infant is involved. Up All Night bucks that trend by putting the responsibility and burden of the job center stage. There is no doubt that raising kids takes its toll on those adults who commit to it. We can hope that Up All Night follows through on its initial promise of examining the current parent in the real world, as painful and confusing and surprising as the experience can be.
It’s easy to imagine Reagan and Chris picking up a copy of Go the Fuck to Sleep in a future episode. The book, which is actually best enjoyed listening to the audio version read by Samuel L. Jackson, was written for parents who are both ready for the challenge, but also a bit daunted by it. The show, like the book, could help to reflect and redefine the state of parenting in our new century, when adults are reluctant to embrace having children as some sort of sacred covenant, but are not so sarcastic as to dismiss the emotional weight of the experience altogether.
Or we could just dispense with the analysis and enjoy the show. Late at night, on your DVR of course, when you finally get the kids to go the fuck to sleep.